Is it time to rethink the private/public distinctions for museums?

October 11, 2016


Back when I started writing about issues in scholarly publishing, I would sometimes write about the distinction between for-profit (bad) and non-profit (good) publishers. While I still recognise this as an issue, thinking it through over the last few years has made it clear that this distinction is largely orthogonal to the one that really matters — which is between open and non-open publishers.

In fact, all four quadrants exist:

 For-profit  Non-profit
 Open  PeerJ  PLOS
 Non-Open  Elsevier  ACS

ACS may be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and PeerJ may be a private company primarily owned by two individuals — but it’s PeerJ that’s pushing openness forward, and ACS doing quite the opposite.



Beautifully preserved cervical vertebra of Barosaurus in the prep. lab at the North American Museum of Natural Life (NAML).

I’ve found myself thinking about this recently for two reasons.

The first is that, like anyone who works on sauropods, I’ve had involvement with specimens at the Sauriermuseum Aathal (SMA), a privately owned museum in Switzerland that holds some astonishingly beautiful and complete specimens, including the Kaatedocus holotype, SMA 0009. In particular, I’ve been invited a few times to peer-review manuscripts describing SMA specimens, and I’ve always felt conflicted about this because of the SVP’s strong position on privately held specimens.

The second thing that’s pushed me to rethink the private-public distinction has been working on Barosaurus. Our experiences with specimens have been varied. Yale University was very helpful when we went to see the holotype YPM 429, and BYU really couldn’t have done more for us on our recent visit. This is what we would hope for, of course. But what we didn’t particularly anticipate is how generous and helpful the people at the commercial fossil hunters Western Paleo Labs would be. When, visiting the North American Museum of Ancient Life, we gazed in awe through their prep. lab window at their several gorgeous Barosaurus cervicals (see photo above), they invited us in to play with them. (The vertebrae, not the people.)

And that made me think about our much less satisfactory experience trying to photograph the presacrals of AMNH 6341 at the American Museum of Natural History — they are entombed in a glass case surmounted by a not-really-transparent walkway:


Which meant that, when trying to obtain dorsal-view photographs, I had to use this technique:


With results like these:


Now I want to be clear that everyone we dealt with at the AMNH was as helpful as they could be. No-one that we met there was in any way obstructive. Yet the fact remains, the crucially important presacral verterbrae of the most widely recognised Barosaurus in the world were essentially impossible to study.

Worse: papers that have been published about those specimens are now essentially irreproducible, because the specimens are not really available for re-study — much as though they’d been sold to Nicolas Cage to display over his mantelpiece.

Whereas the Barosaurus vertebrae at Western Paleo Labs do seem to be available for study.


Just as we were mistaken in focussing primarily on the for-profit/non-profit distinction between publishers when what we really cared about was the open/non-open distinction, could it be that we’ve been misfocussing on the public/private ownership distinction when what we really care about is availability of specimens?

Is there a way to be confident about which museums will and will not always make specifimens available for study? Here’s where my knowledge cuts out, but one would think this would be the key element in museum certification. But then no doubt museum certification is done differently in different jurisdictions. Knowing that a German museum is accredited may tell you something completely different from knowing that an America museum is accredited.

So perhaps what we need is some globally recognised statement that any museum in the world can sign up to: formally committing to keep its specimens available to researchers; and comitting never to sell them to any party that has not also signed up to the statement.


It’s worth noting the Sauriermuseum Aathal seems, as far as I’ve ever heard, to have conducted itself in every way as we would wish. They seem pretty unambiguously to be among the good guys. More: they seem to have unilaterally done more or less what I advocated above: their website declares:

Declaration Concern: Holotypes of the fossil-collection of the Sauriermuseum Aathal.

The Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (SMA), is being recognized more and more as valuable scientific institution. We hereby state publicly the SMA policy concerning holotype specimens. We recognize the importance of these reference specimens for science, and strongly agree that they have to be available for science in perpetuity. Therefore, we declare that all holotypes present at the Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (and all new holotypes that will be described in future), will always be publicly accessible to all bona fide researchers, and will never be allowed to be sold to any private collection.

Are they one step ahead of us? And if so, should we cast off our reservations about publishing on their specimens?



6 Responses to “Is it time to rethink the private/public distinctions for museums?”

  1. Why in holy hell would the AMNH put those verts in a glass enclosure that can’t be accessed? That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, akin to the Dacentrurus holotype being inaccessible due to how it was mounted to the wall (or something).

    WTF, AMNH.

  2. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    I agree fully with this post. Another famous example is Monolophosaurus at the IVPP, which “is deeply embedded in hard foam for travelling exhibition, permitting only detailed observation of the right lateral surface of the skull, as well as limited views of the dorsal, ventral, anterior and posterior surfaces of some elements” (Brusatte et al., 2010). Thus even when a team including IVPP staff wrote a detailed osteology, much of the anatomy was inaccessable.

  3. There was a time, and the AMNH dino halls renovation fell smack into it, when exhibits couldn’t have enough natural light and glass. Why it would be a good idea to use glass slabs so heavy that moving them poses a significant danger to anyone doing so is beyond me, and probably also beyond the exhibit designers *sigh*

    Luckily, today, no museum would ever duplicate this, amIright? [/sarcasm]

  4. Quailsaurus Says:

    Thanks an interesting point of view Mick! Particularly, I believe that every effort to save and put fossils to further scientific scrutiny is valid and should be considered legit. Also, I think that private museums should make associations with a university or research center in a case of closure. In addition, the museum staff and professional paleontologists could have a orpotunity to work togheter, learn togheter, and so on. This approach could enhance the bond between institutions, highlighting not only the research but also the effort ($ and time) that these institutions spend finding and preparing these materials.

    However, as a Brazilian paleontologist I concern with fossil trafficking, which is usually the focus of these museums (especially the Germany ones). This activity is not only deleterious to paleontology, but also to the development of a country’s science. Looking at their website, I spotted a brazilian fossil (a mesosaurus) that most likely went abroad without permission, since in fossil trade is prohibited since 1942.

    Honestly? I really think that SVP should review this statement (private museums) considering all these aspects that I aforementioned. It can push paleontology to further boundaries and new findings.



  5. Fair Miles Says:

    Back to scholarly publishing, (1) generalizations are just that, (2) many of them are useful (a generalization itself!).
    I don’t consider the profit/non-profit axis is to be left aside. Of course you will always find exceptions on both sides of the divide (or you can even define a gradient, if you wish) but the important underlying mechanism is what are they maximising when they have to make decisions. Is it profit for external investors? Is it resources for research or outreach? Is it salaries for their employees? Is it scientific communication per se? And a long etc.!
    In my opinion that is not independent of the workings on the other axis from completely open to obfuscatingly closed, where there are also many grays. E.g. the decision on building a business model based on U$S1500–3000 APCs to maximise openness to read even when restricting openness to write may have a different tone if your goal is freeing scientific communication than if it is returning 30% profits to an international bank consorcium or obtaining extra resources to further monopolise the market…
    In fact, that is precisely why private initiatives keeping their important public roles are such nice surprises as SMA seems to be!

  6. Christian Kammerer Says:

    I can’t say that I agree with the contents of this post. It seems to me that you are basing your conclusions on a very specific set of personal experiences rather than a big-picture view, essentially, “One time I had trouble seeing a public specimen, but another time some private collectors were nice to me, so maybe they are just as good if not better in some ways?” Here I would make an equally anecdatariffic comparison to some of my experiences in scientific publishing: when I’ve published with PLoS, it was nothing but a nightmare–figures mislabeled, mis-sized, all sorts of errors introduced to the text. By contrast when I’ve published with Elsevier I have had nothing but good experiences, very fast, helpful responses from editors and production staff, with very nice final papers resulting. Should I then conclude, “Paywalled, for-profit publishing: at least as good as, and probably better, than open access?”

    You would argue that the two are not comparable, because in my case I am talking solely about a personal experience but you are talking about access to knowledge in general (papers in one case, specimens in the other), with open access to that knowledge being a stated good. However, I would argue that in both cases you are dealing with an institution whose finances are predicated on the removal of knowledge from the common weal. Sure, you can see *this* barosaur vertebra, but who is to say that next time they won’t sell a complete Barosaurus skeleton to some wealthy tycoon before you get a chance to examine it? Perhaps you have faith in the people at the institution not to do this (and yes, the majority of folks I have encountered in private paleo are good to their word). But the fact of the matter is that private museums are not bound by the same laws as public ones. At the end of the day you do have to take them at their word as regards specimen availability. They can say, “Oh yeah, these specimens will be accessible forever” and maybe they mean it, but they are not bound to that by the same regulations that govern a public institution. I believe you have complained in the past about texts that are supposed to be publicly-accessible being put behind paywalls by publishing houses post-facto. Similar things have occurred with many fossils, including holotypes.

    Even with statements like “Museum X promises that all type specimens here will be publicly accessible in perpetuity”, who is to say that “Museum X” doesn’t close down next year, with its holdings either liquidated at auction or purchased by a new owner who rebrands it “Paleosales, Inc.–Everything on Offer!” This has happened before! In the case of the Sauriermuseum I have no doubt that if circumstances forced them to close, their holdings would make their way to public institutions, but again–this is me taking individual personages on faith, not holding public institutions accountable to the law. A good person running a private collection can die, and their heir might not be so good to scientists and the public, whereas when the collections manager of a public museum dies or retires, their replacement has to uphold the same set of standards as their predecessor.

    I guess my feeling is that it is just kind of hypocritical to decry one institution predicated on private control of knowledge and make exceptions for another based on what amounts to personal “trust” rather than official regulations. Now, I should note that I have previously published on specimens that are functionally* in private collections (*long story), so I’m a bit hypocritical on this point myself (but then again, I’ve also published plenty of paywalled papers, so maybe I’m not hypocritical, just a bad guy!)

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